Nursing home residents — especially long-term residents — deserve to have the best entertainment that money can buy. Unfortunately, most nursing home activity directors don’t have the budget to draw musicians of that caliber. But Gary Gamponia, director of the Los Angeles-based Pay It Forward jazz band, is determined to change this. For free.

Two years ago, he started the first Pay It Forward band, which performs exclusively in skilled nursing facilities. When his own mother’s senior center asked the band to perform there, he had to turn it down so they could play a gig at a SNF instead.

“We’re out there for that 90-year-old lady who’s been living there for three years, whose husband is dead and has very little to live for,” Gamponia says.

Currently, Pay It Forward has a rotating roster of about 140 musicians in L.A. alone. Gamponia has helped launch other Pay It Forward troupes in San Jose, CA, and San Diego. All stay true to his mission of performing for long-term nursing home residents. His goal is to expand Pay It Forward to every major city in the United States.

Before he formed the first band, Gamponia set out to make himself an expert in nursing home entertainment. He did this by calling local facilities and asking for their entertainment schedules and then traveled to every gig he could find. He ended up attending more than 200 performances.

Gamponia said he was shocked by the poor quality of most of the events he attended, and bewildered that so many of the performers did not attempt to play the kind of music that most nursing home residents were familiar with. He says he cringed when musicians showed up lugging an acoustic guitar or a karaoke machine.

“There needs to be some organization that is willing to stand up and say,  ‘These people were raised on Benny Goodman and Glen Miller. These are people who traveled to Las Vegas to see Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis perform,’” Gamponia says.

Nursing home residents know bad music when they hear it — when it’s really bad, residents look as if they are in pain, Gamponia explains. But when the music is good, residents start dancing, swaying, smiling or singing along.

To minimize less-than-stellar performances, Gamponia says he vets potential Pay It Forward members very carefully. The bands typically play a broad range of jazz standards familiar to people who grew up in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. Occasionally, they’ll play requests — such as Santana songs — from younger rehab residents.

“It kills us that we have to turn away talent. We’ve turned away musicians that have Grammys. Some musicians just don’t understand that when you’re performing old jazz standards, less is more.”

He adds that too often, due to budget constraints, nursing homes have to take what they can get when it comes to booking entertainment. As a result, residents have told him that they feel insulted and demeaned by their own community after a particularly bad performance.

Gamponia says that’s no way to treat the elderly. He says he is trying to honor and thank residents by playing music they know and love.

“These are people who built this country after the Great Depression, the people who defeated fascism and kept this country a democracy. When we do a show, we say that this is our way of saying thank you to that generation. We want to thank all the people who came before us.”

If your facility would like to book the band, or if you’re interested in forming a Pay It Forward band, call the toll free number at (888) 777-0764. Click here to watch a video about the band’s mission, and here to hear more from the band.